A formulaic family comedy, ripe for a TV sitcom and spawned from a Neil Simon-esque concept, "Over the River and Through the Woods" offers enough easygoing gags, running jokes and stick-in-your-throat sentiment to ensure modest audience appeal. The lightweight comedy, spawned at New Jersey's American Stage Co. two years ago and subsequently seen at the Berkshire Theater Festival, quickly runs out of steam and comic invention despite some hearty early laughs that set the fun in motion.

A formulaic family comedy, ripe for a TV sitcom and spawned from a Neil Simon-esque concept, “Over the River and Through the Woods” offers enough easygoing gags, running jokes and stick-in-your-throat sentiment to ensure modest audience appeal. The lightweight comedy, spawned at New Jersey’s American Stage Co. two years ago and subsequently seen at the Berkshire Theater Festival, quickly runs out of steam and comic invention despite some hearty early laughs that set the fun in motion.

Playwright Joe DiPietro, whose long-running romantic musical “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change” examined heterosexual relationships, has created a memory piece focusing on Nick Cristano (Jim Bracchitta), an unmarried Manhattan marketing executive and media strategist who has been promoted to a lofty position that warrants a move to Seattle.

His parents have retired to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and his only sibling, a sister, resides in San Diego. But he’s still close to his four caring but meddlesome Italian-American grandparents, who have lived all their lives as Hoboken neighbors. Nick’s dutiful weekly visits for dinner are governed by the “three F’s — family, faith and food.” In a desperate effort to prevent the long-distance separation, the possessive and manipulative grandparents hatch a matchmaking scheme to keep Nick close to home.

The pawn is a willowy, young, unmarried nurse (Marsha Dietlein), who is invited to dinner as a prospective mate for Nick. The plan very nearly succeeds, until Nick has a panic attack that requires a week’s convalescence under the uncomfortably doting care of his grandparents.

The barbs spin off a series of running jokes about Grandpa Frank (Val Avery), who has been warned not to drive his car after a series of minor fender-bending collisions; Nanny Aida (Joan Copeland), whose remedy for anything is food; Grandma Emma (Marie Lillo), who produces a prayerful Mass card for every crisis; and Grandpa Nunzio (Dick Latessa), whose roundabout and unorthodox thought processes when playing Trivial Pursuit somehow manage to result in correct answers.

The play features a barrage of non sequiturs tossed out by the impossibly naive grandparents. A psychiatrist misinterpreted as a foot doctor and a vegetarian mistaken for an animal doctor are among the none-too-funny gags relying on malapropisms. The strained humor paves the way for a soupy and soapy finale.

Bracchitta brings a rattled, manic edge to the role of the harried grandson, using the comic zest he brought to DiPietro’s “The Kiss at City Hall,” which also premiered at Teaneck’s American Stage last year. Dietlein adds a sweet presence as the elusive dinner guest, but the role is sketchily drawn.

The grandparents could use a touch of oregano. Perhaps the director wanted it that way, but there is little Italiano spice or old-country flavor present in either speech patterns or body language.

The set design provides a cushy and homey atmosphere, and one can nearly smell the aroma of lasagna each time the kitchen door swings open.

Over the River and Through the Woods

(COMEDY; JOHN HOUSEMAN THEATER; 299 SEATS; $ 45 TOP)

Production

NEW YORK A Jonathan Pollard, Bernie Kukoff, Tony Converse and James Hammerstein presentation of a play in two acts by Joe DiPietro. Directed by Joel Bishoff. Set and

Crew

Lighting, Neil Peter Jampolis and Jane Reisman; costume designer, Pamela Scofield; music, Jimmy Roberts; stage manager, Megan Schneid. Opened Oct. 5, 1998. Reviewed Oct. 2. Running time: 2 HOURS.

With

Nick Cristano ..... Jim Bracchitta Frank Gianelli ..... Val Avery Aida Gianelli ..... Joan Copeland Nunzio Cristano ..... Dick Latessa Emma Cristano ..... Marie Lillo Caitlin O'Hare ..... Marsha Dietlein
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